Thirty-five years ago this January, a five-year moratorium on the taking of striped bass went into effect in the state of Maryland.
Other states, including Massachusetts, soon followed suit with regulations resulting in a near-total shutdown of fishing for the vaunted species across the 11 coastal states where it migrates.
There was no scientific consensus on what was causing the disastrous decline of stripers. Pollution on the Chesapeake Bay spawning grounds was surely a factor, but solving that problem would take years — and by then, it would be too late. The only realistic solution was to stop the fishing pressure from commercial and recreational anglers.
My family and I, longtime Vineyard fishermen, played an integral role in fighting for this to happen. And it worked, beyond anyone’s wildest imaginings. A striped bass population estimated to contain about 4.6 million fish in 1982 would reach a historic peak of an astounding 56.7 million fish in 2004.
The resurgence of the striper was hailed by Scientific American magazine as “the best example in the world of a species that was allowed to recoup through tough management and an intelligent rebuilding plan.”
Now in a painful déjà vu, another dire crisis is occurring. Once again, the reasons are unclear. New threats have arisen, including not enough available food due to overfishing of menhaden and the aquatic environment being detrimentally affected by climate change. So, once again, all we can do immediately is drastically reduce fishing mortality.
A recent study of female spawning stock biomass revealed a sudden drop of levels deemed strong enough to sustain the species. An overfishing threshold estimated at 202 million pounds in 2017 fell to 151 million pounds this year. In the realm of the fish, that’s a lot.
In response, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission mandated an 18% cut in allowable harvest quotas for 2020. This includes an addendum that will hold sports fishermen to keeping one striper per day and require the release of any fish measuring less than 28 inches and more than 35 inches.
Obviously, the Vineyard derby’s prizes for the largest stripers, daily and overall, fly in the face of the new conservation measures. This past autumn, the derby weighed in 146 striped bass, the majority being precisely those females bearing the most eggs.
It’s time to take the bass out of the derby. A precedent already exists.
Back in 1985, and for the eight years that followed, derby officials removed endangered stripers from the competition and made it a bluefish derby.
The decision did not come easily. A full-page ad in The Vineyard Gazette signed by more than 50 fishermen and conservationists, including seven former derby grand prize winners, had called for this to happen a year earlier.
When the derby committee and the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce were not swayed, sponsors began to withdraw their support. Saltwater Sportsman magazine led the way, followed by three leading fishing gear manufacturers including the world’s largest rod and reel maker, Zebco. The town of Chilmark formally declared it could no longer in good conscience support a bass derby.
On May 23, 1985, the derby committee reversed itself. Striped bass would be dropped from the tournament, not to be included again until the fishery recovered. With that, all the sponsors moved to renew their support. The bluefish-focused event continued to thrive, and the Vineyard assumed a role as a conservation leader.
We would do well to heed the lesson of history, seeking to ensure that despite the many obstacles in its path, this most majestic of inshore creatures will continue to survive if given a chance by their primary predator. Stronger protections will no doubt need to be put in place. Recreational fishermen must realize their role in the decline and utilize less damaging circle hooks while practicing catch and release.
It makes no sense that commercial fishermen in Massachusetts still be allowed to take 15 fish a day twice a week with a 34-inch minimum size limit, when the larger females are desperately needed to keep the population afloat. The fact that the allocated catch hasn’t even been reached for the past two years should be a sign that business as usual can’t continue.
In October, the annual survey tracking reproduction success for juvenile striped bass in Maryland fell to 3.4 fish per scientific haul, well below the 66-year average of 11.6.
So it’s quite likely that the current quota cutbacks called for across the Atlantic coast and in the Chesapeake Bay do not go far enough. This was the case in the mid-1980s, when it became apparent that a 55% reduction in fishing pressure wasn’t going to keep the bass off the Endangered Species List.
We must prepare for another complete moratorium. Until then, it is unconscionable to keep striped bass in the Vineyard derby.
Dick Russell is the author of “Striper Wars: An American Fish Story” and lives part of the year on Martha’s Vineyard. This column first appeared in The Vineyard Gazette.